Does Group Prayer Matter?

Original Date: 
Sunday, February 1, 2015

Matthew 6:5-6, 9-13 Prayer Questions: Does Group Prayer Matter?

Better Together?
There are some things that are simply better when done in a group rather than done alone. We put together a little video to illustrate this fact:

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Whether it is playing football, getting a root canal, or waterskiing—some things are just better in groups. Which leads to our question of the day: is prayer one of those things? Is it better to pray together or alone? Does group prayer matter?

Well, as with many of our prayer questions, the best thing to do is go to Jesus. A couple of weeks ago, when we were wondering about a right and wrong way to pray, we looked at the things Jesus said while introducing the Lord’s Prayer in Luke. Last week, when we were wondering about whether prayer changes a God who knows everything, we started with what Jesus said while introducing the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew. Now, this week, we can go back to the same passage in Matthew to see what the Lord has to say about praying together. Matthew 6:5-6:

5"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

At first blush, it would seem that Jesus is opposed to praying together. At the very least, we can say that prayer by yourself is good. Prayer does not fall into the same categories as wrestling or getting engaged: you can and should do it alone.

In older translations of the Bible, Jesus says in verse 6 that you should “go into your closet” to pray. So many people will talk about private prayer as “closet prayer.” I think the Bible teaches, and Jesus assumes, that each Christian will and should cultivate habits and rhythms of “secret” prayer—opportunities to spend “quiet time” alone with God.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus is opposed to all forms of group prayer. What He is specifically talking about here, and condemning, is the kind of showy and public prayer that is more about calling attention to oneself than in developing a relationship with God.

The key phrase in that regard is the phrase “to be seen by men.” It reminds me of the story that Jesus tells in the book of Luke about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple at the same time to pray. The Pharisee made a big production about it and prayed loudly about himself, cataloguing the many and wonderful ways he served God. The tax collector was humble and quiet, simply identifying himself as a sinner and asking God to be merciful. It was the tax collector, and not the religious professional, whom Jesus said was approved by God (Luke 18:9-14).

In fact, just a few verses later, as He introduces the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus shows that He is most definitely not opposed to group prayer. Matthew 6, starting at verse 9:

9"This, then, is how you should pray: 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. 11Give us today our daily bread. 12Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. '

What I want you to notice is the word “our.” John Piper calls this “the sweet ‘our’ of prayer”—not with an H, but simply O-U-R. Notice how the first person plural is used throughout the prayer. “Give us today our daily bread.” “Forgive us our debts.” “Lead us not into temptation.”

You could try to pray this prayer individually: “My father in heaven”, “give me my daily bread”, “deliver me from the evil one”; but it doesn’t sound right, and it actually feels pretty selfish. When Jesus composed this model prayer for us, He very intentionally put it in a form that fits it for social and public use more than for secret and private use. You can pray this prayer by yourself, and you should, but even then you pray it in the plural and it reminds you that you are a part of a family bigger than just yourself.

So Jesus is certainly in favor of individual prayer, but He also wants us to pray together. In the closet, but also with company. Private as well as public prayers. We often refer to this as “corporate” prayer—“corporate” coming from the Latin word for “body.” There is value to praying with other members of the body. As John Piper says: “There is something self-contradictory about praying with the words "our," "us," and "we," but never experiencing the our, us, and we in prayer.” (“Sweet ‘Our’ of Prayer”, Jan. 4, 1987).

So what I would like to do today is look at three Biblical benefits of praying together. 3 reasons we should pray with company as well as alone.

There I Am
First: Praying together attracts Christ. The Bible indicates that when Christians pray together Jesus is present in a special way. The passage I have in mind here, one that is likely to come up whenever we talk about group prayer, is Matthew 18:19-20. Jesus says:

19"Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."

Now, I should point out that this is not strictly a passage about prayer. In context, Jesus is talking about the very sticky subject of church discipline. He teaches that when another believer sins against you, you should first go one-on-one to talk it out. If that does not bring resolution, Jesus encourages us to bring along one or two others. If that still does not bring repentance, Jesus says the church should be told. And if that does not change the sinful behavior, then Jesus says the person should be removed from the fellowship.

So, in context, Jesus is saying that when two or three agree together that a certain behavior is sinful, there will be agreement in heaven. It’s the same standard of legal proof used in the Old Testament, no one could be convicted of a crime without the “testimony of two or three witnesses.” (Matt. 18:16)

But in these verses, Jesus seems to expand what he is talking about beyond matters of discipline to “anything you ask for.” He says that when two or three of us gather in His name, He is there in a special way. What does that mean?

I learned this week that the word translated as “agree” in verse 19 is the word from which we get our English word “symphony.” I think that is telling. The thing about a symphony is that you have a group of different musical instruments, and they’re not all playing exactly the same thing, but what they play “harmonizes” with everyone else. It “agrees.” So Jesus isn’t giving us a secret code to get anything we want—get two or three people to pray exactly the same thing and God is obligated to give it to you (that would be the same as reducing prayer to magic, and as we’ve been saying throughout this series, prayer is not magic)—but He is encouraging us to sing the same song in our prayers. Dennis Fuqua, an international prayer leader, writes:

When you think of corporate prayer, think of a group of people playing (or praying) a symphony from the same score, under the same Conductor, but playing their own unique instrument. They contribute just the right notes at just the right time. It is not simply that I am praying what is on my heart. It is that, together, we are prying what is on God’s heart. The result is not only that Jesus hears more prayer, but that He hears one prayer from many voices. (“United and Ignited,” Prayer Connect Magazine, July/August 2012, p. 14)

And so, Jesus is promising that when this sort of harmony exists, He is present in a unique way.

In some sense, then, there is additional power in group prayer. Consider James 5:14-16:

14Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

This is a very important passage on prayer that we will look at more closely in a couple of weeks. But for now, I want you to notice how James encourages the sick man to call in the elders of the church to pray. Of course, the sick man can and should pray by himself. But the implication is that there will be additional power if members of the church come and pray together. James Banks writes:

Praying together is spiritual teamwork—the whole, more than the sum of the parts. If, individually, the prayer of a righteous person is “powerful and effective”, the prayers of God’s children, humbly gathered together before the throne of grace, have a worth and beauty so precious to God that it surely evokes a special response. (“A Foretaste of Heaven,” Prayer Connect, ibid, p. 22).

There is a sense in which Jesus is more powerfully present when Christian brothers and sisters unite their hearts together in prayer.

United in Love
The second benefit of corporate prayer is that Praying Together Unites Us. The practice of praying together is a way to deepen our unity within the church. Spiritual unity is a highly held value throughout the New Testament. As just one example I can cite Colossians 2:2-3:

2My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Jesus prayed for our unity (John 17), the apostle Paul appeals for unity in the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:10), tells the Philippians to make his joy complete by being “in full accord and of one mind” (Phli. 2:2) and commands the church in Ephesus to be unified (Eph. 4:4-6). So how does praying together help us to “be encouraged in heart and united in love”?

For one thing, praying with others helps us learn to pray better. We can learn principles of prayer by hearing how others approach God. Not that there’s a special prayer language we need to learn to speak—for example, my Dad came from a generation and background that tended to use “thee” and “thou” in prayer even though he never used those words in regular conversation—but we can learn much by hearing the heart of others as they enter into communion with God. Donald Whitney writes:

One fellow Christian may give biblical reasons to the Lord why a prayer should be answered. Another might show us how to pray through passages of Scripture. By praying with a faithful intercessor we might learn how to pray for missions. Praying regularly with others can be one of the most enriching adventures of your Christian life. (Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, p. 73)

Or, again, praying with others helps us learn more about one another. If you really want to get to know another person, to know what they treasure and value, spend regular time praying with him or her. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr who thought and wrote so much about doing “life together” wrote:

The fact simply remains that where Christians want to live together under the Word of God they may and they should pray together to God in their own words… Here all fear of one another, all timidity about praying freely one’s own words in the presence of others may be put aside where in all simplicity and soberness the common, brotherly prayer is lifted to God… It is in fact the most normal thing in the common Christian life to pray together. (from Life Together, quoted in “Giving Ourselves to Prayer,” pg. 311)

Elsewhere Bonhoeffer wrote:

Christ stands between us and we can only get into touch with our neighbors through him. (from The Cost of Discipleship, quoted by Yancey, Prayer, p. 305)

It may, in fact, be this increased level of intimacy and relationship that makes so many of us uncomfortable with the idea of group prayer. And yet, a deeper life together is what Christ calls us to in the Bible.

And, perhaps the most important way praying together develops unity is by helping us learn more about Jesus. With our limited vision and perspective, there are aspects of Christ which we may not see as well or as clearly as others. But when we pray with others some of their perception and experience of Christ is likely to be transferred to us.

The truth is: you don’t really know another person until you know them in a group with others. That’s why one of the things we tell young people when they begin to date is to make sure they have plenty of opportunities to see the person they are interested in interact with others. It is in those additional relationships that you get a better rounded picture of the person. So, Tim Keller writes:

If it takes a community to know an ordinary human being, how much more necessary would it be to get to know Jesus alongside others? By praying with friends, you will be able to hear and see facets of Jesus that you have not yet perceived (Prayer, 119).

Keller suggests that this might be the reason the angels around God’s throne, as seen by Isaiah in chapter 6 of his prophecy, are crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another. Each angel is communicating what he sees of God’s glory to the others. Part of the benefit of praying together is that we can share what we know of God with one another.

The Boiler Room
And then, the third biblical benefit of group prayer is that Praying Together Ignites Us. God uses corporate prayer to stir us up and bring us more in line with His purposes. This can probably be best seen by doing a quick survey of group prayer in the book of Acts. For instance, Acts 1:14. In the days immediately after Jesus left the disciples and ascended back to heaven, it says:

14They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

There were about 120 believers in all, and they prayed in this way for about 10 days. The result was Pentecost, and the sudden and dramatic arrival of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit came they were ready, and they stepped out of the house and proclaimed the good news of Jesus to any who would listen. On that day alone three thousand people were added to the church.

After that, Acts 2:42 says this is what they did:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Fellowship and corporate prayer marked the life of the early church, and the Lord added to their number daily (Acts 2:47).

Then, later, when opposition to the church began to develop and Peter and John were called before the authorities, the church responded by praying. Acts 4:24 says “they raised their voices together in prayer to God.” And when they were done praying, Acts 4:31 says:

31After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

And the examples could go on. The early church prayed, and they were ignited to go out and share Jesus with the world. God used their prayers together to create courage, strength, passion and direction within the church. One more example, from Acts 13:2-3:

2While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

This is the church in Antioch, the first church to send out missionaries with explicit intention of sharing the message of Christ where it had not yet been heard and to plant new churches. And the idea and the commissioning of these missionaries came out of a prayer meeting.

When people pray together there is a greater sense of mission and a greater impact in the name of Christ.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) is known as the ‘prince of preachers.’ He was a Baptist minister in England who saw enormous blessings from God upon his ministry. It is not an exaggeration to say that thousands came to Christ through his preaching. Some of the services at the Metropolitan Tabernacle where he preached drew as many as 10,000 people at a time!

Yet Spurgeon never took credit for the success of his ministry. Instead, he always pointed to power of prayer. In fact, the story is often told (and you may have heard it) of two young seminary students who came to London with the express purpose of hearing Spurgeon speak. Arriving early, they were delighted when they bumped into the great preacher himself and he offered to take them on a tour of the building. He showed them the many features of the building—the choir loft and the balcony, the education wing and so on.

Then he asked them if they would like to see the “boiler room.” They were ministerial students, they didn’t know much about heating or cooling nor did they care much about the mechanics of how the large building was maintained. But if Spurgeon wanted to give them more of his time, they weren’t going to turn him down. So he took them to a large set of doors in the basement and said: “This is the ‘boiler room’ of this church. This is what keeps it running…” Then he threw open the doors to reveal hundreds of people with their heads bowed and knees bent praying for God to move in that day’s services.

Spurgeon always encouraged his people to keep praying together. He said:

May our prayer meetings be sustained in fervor, and increased in number! Praying is, after all, the chief matter. Praying is the end of preaching. Preaching has its right use, and must never be neglected, but real heart devotion is worth more than anything else. Prayer is the power which brings God’s blessing down upon all our work. (quoted by Banks, “A Foretaste of Heaven,” PrayerConnect magazine, July/August 2012, p. 23)

From the days of the Apostles until today, God has used groups of people praying together to ignite great works within His people.

Pray Together
So, Jesus encourages us to pray solo as well as to pray socially. Our private prayer practice is best complemented by public prayer. Never forget the sweet ‘our’ of prayer. When we pray together we attract Christ, we build unity, and we are ignited to impact the world. The application then, is that we should pray together. I want to challenge you to join a prayer meeting. To partner together in prayer. To take advantage of opportunities to pray in the body.

Several weeks ago we asked everyone here to fill out a brief and anonymous prayer survey. I don’t have time to go through all the results, but our prayer leadership team is grateful for your participation and is using the information gathered to lead us into deeper prayer.

There is one statistic, however, that stood out to me. Of 277 completed responses, we learned that 36 percent pray with other believers at least once a week. I want you to know that I was both encouraged and challenged by that number. On the one hand, I was encouraged because—to be perfectly honest—I feared it would be much lower. One third of our church prays with other believers at least once a week. That’s pretty good.

But, at the same time, it is challenging. Because that means that two thirds of you are not regularly praying with other believers (outside of worship services) and I’d love to see that number go up. So, let me challenge you to find a prayer partner, or to join a regular prayer meeting. To help, in this coming week we are putting an emphasis on group prayer. Each weekday this week, we are holding a corporate prayer time. You can find the times and topics in the bulletin. Please try your best to attend one of these concerts of prayer.

And, finally, let me share some thoughts from a Blog post on Desiring God by David Mathis about how to pray together:

Make it regular. Instead of just hit-or-miss, have some planned time and place to gather with fellow believers to pray. Ask someone to partner with you in prayer and set a schedule for meeting. Join one of the regular times of prayer here at church and commit to attending regularly. Just as I have a hard time consistently running unless I have someone to run with, so do I find that my prayer life is more consistent when I commit to pray with someone else on regular schedule. For example, I’m part of the prayer group that meets at 6:30 on Tuesday mornings. At that time of day, the building is still locked. I have a key. So I know that if I don’t get here, others will have to wait until Milan arrives. So I come. Praying with others can help you be accountable in your prayers.

Second, Start with Scripture. When we don’t know what to pray about, we can always read a passage of Scripture as a kind of “call to prayer.” Mathis writes: “Christian prayer at its truest comes in response to God’s self-revelation to us…We inhale the Scriptures, and exhale in prayer.”

Third, Limit share time. It can be easy to let the sharing of requests cannibalize the actual act of praying together. Sometimes prayer meetings can run on because so much gossip takes place first as a way of “sharing requests.” That’s not necessary. Keep your introductions short, read a passage, and go right into prayer. You can share your requests simply by praying them with enough information to let others in on what you’re praying about.

Fourth, Encourage brevity and focus. I think another reason many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of attending a prayer meeting is because we have a picture in our minds of four or five people each praying 15 minute prayers over the list of church needs. That’s not really “group” prayer, it’s more like individual prayers being said in the presence of others. And prayer groups need not be like that. Focus prayers around just a few topics, and pray short prayers that encourage others to participate.

And, fifth, Pray without show, but with others in mind. Remind yourself that corporate prayer is not for impressing others but for gathering others up with us in our praises, confessions, thanksgivings, and requests. We must always remember Jesus’ warning against praying “to be seen by men.” But, at the same time, we remember that others are in the room, and so as we pray aloud we should pray in a way that others can hear, and know what we are praying about. We don’t have to be eloquent nor particularly wordy to invite others to join in our prayers.

Jesus taught us to pray "OUR Father," not just my Father; and so he led the church toward the powerful experience of praying together and not just alone. I hope to join with many of you in prayer this week.